In its Terms of Reference, the Panel is requested both to reflect on and to promote reflection on ethical issues arising from food production and consumption practices and on agricultural development, including forestry and fisheries. This is to be done in the context of food security, sustainable use of natural resources, the safeguarding of biodiversity and a balanced mix of traditional and modern technologies to increase food security and sustainable agriculture.
The Panel considered that the fundamental ethical commitment of FAO is to ensure humanity's freedom from hunger and the access of everyone to adequate food, as stated in the Organization's Constitution and subsequent commitments. It also noted that, while the aim of conservation and sustainable management of natural resources for present and future generations was not expressly stated in the Constitution, in practice it has become a major concern of FAO.
The Panel noted that some differences of opinion exist in the world today concerning ethical values, including utilitarian versus libertarian approaches and ethical assessments of actions versus ethical assessments of consequences or outcomes. Cultural differences also influence ethical positions. Common ground, however, can be found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; since this was adopted in 1948, there has been one basic value framework that spans cultures, religions and ideologies.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a comprehensive package of concerns in which the separate rights encompassed are considered to be interdependent and indivisible. Among them is the right to an adequate standard of living, including food. The Declaration also includes the right of everyone to benefit from the achievements of modern science and technology.
Article 1 of the Declaration lays the foundation by stating not only that everyone is born free and equal in terms of dignity and rights, but that everyone is endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Particularly relevant to the ethical assessment of the Panel are the values of food, human health, natural resources and nature itself. In sum, ethics requires people to go beyond self-interest and to care for one another. It requires people to care for the earth and to be prepared to share common resources. However, it must be taken into account that, in practice, these values can be conflicting. The respect for life is fundamental to ethics. Therefore, food and the guarantee of access to adequate supplies by everyone are among the top priorities in the hierarchy of human values.
The Panel took into account the comparative advantage of FAO in addressing ethics in food and agriculture, and it also considered the division of labour among different UN agencies. Central to FAO's mandate is the realization of the right to food, which is defined by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 2 (General Comment No. 12, paragraph 8) as follows:
The availability of food in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals, a free from adverse substances, and acceptable within a given culture. Such food should be accessible in ways that are sustainable and that do not interfere with the enjoyment of other human rights.
Despite the fact that the international community has frequently reaffirmed the right of everyone to be free from hunger, the stark fact is that more than 840 million people throughout the world, most of them in the developing world, are chronically hungry. The root of this immense problem of hunger and malnutrition is not a global lack of food, but rather a lack of access to food. Inadequate access to food is mainly due to poverty and the vast income gap between the rich and the poor in the world, and it is exacerbated by situations of armed conflict and environmental degradation.
The most urgent ethical task is to assess activities relating to food and agriculture in the light of their actual and potential impact on the reduction of poverty, hunger and malnutrition.
2 The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is a body of independent experts set up by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to monitor the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It adopts from occasional General Comments, which serve as an interpretation of, or guidance to, the obligations by states under the Covenant. Such interpretative General Comments have been adopted on, inter alia, the right to food, the right to health, the right to housing and the right to education.
The texts of these General Comments are available on the Web site of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, http://www.unhchr.ch/.